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NKB’s Notebook: Out of the Box Thinking

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Some thoughts on the PK, the Batherson-Tkachuk duo, and more

Winnipeg Jets v Ottawa Senators Photo by Andre Ringuette/NHLI via Getty Images

Welcome back for the second edition of NKB’s Notebook, where I share some observations from the prior week of Sens games. The idea here is to get into the tactical nitty-gritty in a bit more depth, but also to share some stray observations from watching the local heroes. The first edition was met quite warmly, so thank you for that, but I’m always looking for feedback; please feel free to let me know in the comments below if there’s something more, or different, that you’d like to see.

  • One of the more interesting aspects of this season’s schedule forcing teams to play an opponent several times in a row is the impact on tactical and strategic game planning. The Senators’ PK was generally pretty effective in the first two games of this week’s series against the Jets, allowing just one goal on twelve attempts, but in the finale on Saturday it seemed as if the Jets had figured it out. The Sens play a fairly passive box by NHL standards, and they rely on their four man unit maintaining strong cohesion to prevent passes through the seams. They’re content to let the other team move the puck around the outside.

The Jets’ PP, long predicated on exactly those types of through the seams’ passes (particularly to the recently departed Laine for a one-timer) wasn’t finding its way through until they made the adjustment in the Saturday game to attack by going high-low: the forward on the sideboards would throw it to another attacker at the goal line beside the net, who would one touch it into the slot in what is effectively a mini 3-on-2. On the last Jets’ PP that resulted in the goal that gave them the lead, the outcome felt inevitable — as if the Jets had simply solved the Sens’ PK. I’d wager good money that Winnipeg spent some effort on game tape working out how to attack on the power play; the kind of time and care that’s not normally afforded a team during the regular season.

  • With almost the entire team struggling at times this week, the Brady Tkachuk-Josh Norris-Drake Batherson line has emerged as by far the team’s best and most reliable. One of the keys to the trio’s success so far is the budding chemistry between Tkachuk and Batherson, particularly their work on the cycle in the offensive end. From a tactical perspective, Norris looks to have been instructed to operate as the third forward, and to stay high so that the other two can work their magic below the hashmarks. This is typical setup, but Norris’ instructions seem to be particularly strict: stay high.

Tkachuk and Batherson’s skillsets are complementary in this way: Tkachuk is an elite puck retriever, and also a creator of pure chaos around the crease. He’s willing to defer to Batherson so that Drake can in turn find the incisive pass that sets up the scoring chance. They also work very well off each other with little five foot passes that turn into give-and-gos, and they don’t give the puck up cheaply by needlessly chipping ‘n’ chasing. There may yet be some questions about the top line’s defensive readiness for end of game scenarios, but the Tkachuk-Batherson duo is already functioning at a high level on the offensive end.

  • As for the other member of the top line, it’s easy to see through the first five games why Smith gave him the assignment out of camp: Norris is a good skater with strong positional awareness and has not been prone to gaffes in the early going. In that sense he’s a good fit with the aforementioned star wingers; he’s showing a lot of poise and maturity for a 21 year old. At the same time, I’ve been a little bit less impressed with his work in the offensive zone and on the PP. It’s not that Norris is making bad plays, it’s that I rarely see him making positive plays. In a perfect world, I think he would be a great fit on the third line, possibly sliding up to the second if needed, but given the other options at centre he’s probably the best Smith can do right now. The mere fact that there seems to be no question that Norris is a legitimate NHLer is a big win for the team, but if he’s going to take the leap to bonafide top line centreman there’s still some work to do in the offensive end.
  • My final thought is that through four games, Mike Reilly is once again giving the Sens good minutes on the backend. I’d count myself as something of a Reilly skeptic, but we’ve now got a 34 game track record for the Sens during which he’s been about as good as one could expect. His limitations in his own end are real, both defensively and breaking the puck out effectively, but he’s also a real plus through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone. Besides Chabot (and Wolanin when he’s in the line-up), no other Sens defenseman makes more happen on the cycle than Reilly. He’s quite good at walking the line to open up shooting and passing lanes, and he is frequently able to get pucks on net to create rebound opportunities when so many other defensemen would have ended up just firing a shot into a pair of shin pads. There’s going to be a lot of competition for spots on the blueline as the Sens’ prospects make their way through the system, but for now the team could do a lot worse than running Reilly out on the third pair.